Rowena Maguire on the responsibilities of emerging economies to reduce emmisions

In today’s QUT Law research seminars, Dr Rowena Maguire examines the shifting global politics around climate change and the emerging power of the BASIC nations.

In order to tackle climate change and limit warming to 2 degrees, a global coordinated approach is required. The basic question in international discussions is whether emerging economies should bear equal responsibilities to limit emissions, or whether obligations should be focused on developed nations. The Kyoto protocol is essentially dead, because developed countries have refused to take on international commitments unless it is guaranteed that all countries take on those obligations. The major front is now the Durban platform for enhanced action, which tries to get all countries to agree to agree by 2015, with a view to introducing reductions from 2020 onwards.

The framework for much of the international debate is that of ‘sustainable development’, and the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’, which promotes the right to development for developing countries as well as an emphasis on sustainability. The BASIC block of countries have emerged as an important power block in these negotiations. Brazil in particular has been keen to stress the importance of assessing cumulative (historical) pollution stocks, which reveals developed nations to be much bigger contributors to global emissions. However, it is important to note that cumulative pollution stocks of BRICS countries by 2020 will equal that of developing countries – so the historical view may not be as relevant in the future. Another concern from the BASIC countries is capacity — development is often the priority of these countries. India, in particular, suggests that developed countries need to compensate developing countries in money and technological assistance. China suggests that we need to assess emissions on a per-capita basis, rather than per-country, which makes a significant difference to obligations.

Reconciling these concerns at an international level is proving extremely difficult. The US in particular has said that it will oppose any differential treatment. Australia, the EU, and other countries are open to discussion, but no real progress has been made on developing politically acceptable protocols.

Maguire’s work is now examining how cooperation may proceed and what some workable definition of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ may look like. Some important outstanding questions include how many differential categories need to be created (developed nations, developing nations, emerging economies, least developed countries, …), and how differential rules might be applied (do we introduce different responsibilities, or provide financial, technological, and time-based assistance to particular classes of countries?).

You can read more about Rowena’s work and related contributions in a new book, edited by Maguire, Lewis, and Samford: Shifting global powers and international law (Routledge, 2013), and you can view her publications here.

Image: The sinking of Tuvalu